As a child living in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, Clay Markley drew cartoons. But the characters weren’t Batman, Superman, or other superheros.
“They all looked like me,” says Markley, 31.
But not exactly like him. “I always imagined having long hair because mom would never let me have long hair. I guess years later as the cartoon progressed, the characters would emulate the things I would desire. Like tattoos and piercings.”
He also held a guitar in some of the drawings. “A bass guitar. I also drew my own custom pro models.”
As the years went by, Markley let his hair grow. He got tattoos and piercings. And he got a guitar in his hands. But life wasn’t smooth sailing.
“I know a lot of people say this with pride: ‘I’ve seen a lot of things. A lot of things have happened to me.’ I really have undergone a lot. I don’t say that from a point of pride. I don’t say that proudly.”
Markley’s hair was still short and he didn’t have any piercings or tattoos when he picked up the bass for the first time when he was in the fifth grade. His friend’s dad taught him to play so he couple play bass in a band with his sons who played guitar and drums. “He taught me my first bass line to a song. It was actually a Christian song he taught me. One he made up. And we performed it at the fifth grade talent show and we won. ‘What’s the Good News.’”
Markley still didn’t consider himself a musician. “I didn’t think I’d ever be cool enough to be a musician. I thought it involved people in big cities that were born into it, or, mysteriously, on the radio.”
Then Markley, who was overweight in elementary school, lost weight the summer before he entered middle school. “No one knew who I was. They’re like, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m Clay.’ They’re like, ‘No way. You’re not Clay.’ It was really a culture shock for me. And then something that never happened to me before: the girls were actually interested in me.”
They started calling him. “I’m freaking out. For me, I’m just that fat kid that likes to draw cartoons. That probably doesn’t shower enough.”
In seventh grade, he became the new Clay Markley. “All of sudden different kids that never talked to me wanted to be my friends.”
Markley, who adopted “one of those late ‘90s beach blonde haircuts,” dated the sister of the most popular girl in school and began hanging out with their friends. “I became totally different. I started going shopping with them. Going to the mall. Started wearing Abercrombie. And changed completely.”
That didn’t last long. “I watched this movie and I think it changed me because I was so impressionable. I’ve always been impressionable. It was called SLC Punk and it was about these punks that lived in Salt Lake City, the Mormon capital, and they’re just creating anarchy everywhere they go. I loved it. For some reason, the music was like nothing I’d ever heard. And their attitude towards everything was so different from anything I’d comprehended. Instead of conforming to the system, it was identifying the system and basically revolting against it.
“I pierced my lip in the eighth grade and I got suspended for it. Just started acting up. I was in school suspensions for dropping the F bomb.”
He dressed differently. “One day I wore oven mittens to school. I would take whatever color of Kool-Aid I could find and dye my hair that color for that day.”
He also put Krazy Glue in his hair. “Then I talked my mom into letting me grow my hair out. She’s like, ‘As long as you don’t put glue in it.’”
Markley was more into skateboarding than into music. “I was like, ‘This is anarchy on four wheels.’”
He began smoking pot. “I liked it. It gave me a break from myself and my mind.”
Markley continued to play bass, but his music interest piqued when he began playing keyboards. His mother, who was taking keyboard lessons, “had the keyboard hooked up to this Mac with a midi cable. And with GarageBand I figured out I was able to play not only sounds on the keyboard that go through the computer, but I could actually create sounds. I started getting into sound production.”
He thought he was “just creating weird sounds,” but, he says, “I was actually composing songs.”
Markley was making music, but he also was continuing to get in trouble. He and some friends got caught breaking into a house. “At that age of 16, I got on probation, broke my probation, was spending every weekend of my summer in juvenile hall.”
He had been drinking and doing drugs for years. “It wasn’t severe at that time, but, of course, it escalated.”
Markley was kicked out of school. “Pot and drinking. Parties. All that stuff. Everything they don’t want you to do, I did.”
He “got into this meathead phase” so he could try to stop smoking pot. He “got all hostile and started getting into boxing and fighting. Started hanging out with the tough guys in school.”
Markley moved to California for eight months. “I’m in California at 17. This is amazing. Everyone has pot. This is awesome. I was listening to music. I can be a little of everything here. I can be a skater. I can be punk. I can be a hippie.”
He got back into music big time when he was 18. Markley, who had moved back to Wisconsin, and some guys played in a jam band, Crunch Factory. “That was our coined term. And we thought we were very cool saying it, ‘Hey, man. It’s crunchy crunchy jam.’ Everyone would say, ‘That dude’s heady.’ But the thing about being heady, if you’re truly heady, you don’t say you’re heady.”
He and the band members got an apartment together in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “It was the birthplace of Les Paul. There’s a really cool little music scene there. About two months later we got evicted. Band broke up. Someone got stuck with the lease.”
Markley moved in with a friend, who had just gotten a five-bedroom farmhouse and barn “in the middle of nowhere” in Watertown, and formed “Tiramisu,” a jam band. We played shows in our barn. The barn had a full bar. It had a stage. It had a basketball court. It was the best place to party in the world.”
His drinking kicked in. “I remember every day after work i’d stop and get a fifth of whisky and a 12 pack. Old Thompson and Miller LIght. PBR if they weren’t sold out.”
Things got out of hand. “It was getting to the point where a week would go by and I’d be like, ‘What the hell happened?’ I’ll never forget that feeling I had of just, ‘This is not the way to live.’”
The band broke up. “I ended up calling my parents and saying, ‘Hey, mom and dad. I have a problem.’”
Markley moved back home and stopped drinking. He cut his hair and began exercising. “That was a big deal for me to cut my hair.
“I thought for the first time, ‘Do I actually like music?’ It was a hard question to seriously ask myself. Because drinking became associated with music. And music became associated with drinking. And they went hand in hand. I relied on it. I relied on music for all my creative juices, influences, how I played on stage. I relied on it for everything in music.”
He then began “identifying with the acoustic guitar” a lot more. “I felt like I was able to say a little more. I was able to sing with it. That’s when I believe I started getting into songwriting. And that was a huge moment for me. To be like, ‘I do love music.’”
“Crazy Young Lady’ was his first original song. “It’s about an ex-girlfriend that I had on the farm. And she broke my heart.”
He also realized he could sing. “I never thought I could sing. I know I’m not an amazing singer, but I can sing enough to get my point across.”
Markley was 22 when he said, “I’m a songwriter. That’s what I am.”
His songs were “about a girl. Every time. About getting sober. Real heavy stuff.”
Markley became “spiritual” after he was fired from one of his many factory jobs. “I was just getting into Christianity and I went to a Christian music festival with one of my friends in sobriety. It was called Life Fest.”
Noticing a booth for Visible Music College in Memphis, Markley grabbed one of the school’s brochures and stuck it on his bulletin board at home. “I spent a year working at those factories and looking at that brochure on my bulletin board. Every night when I was falling asleep I would look at it and I would envision myself on a stage.”
Markley got fired from his factory job after falling asleep working third shift. “I’m like, ‘That’s it.’”
He and a buddy hit the road for Memphis and Visible Music College. In Memphis, Markley immediately “noticed the weather. How people talked. How people were a little friendlier. I could tell there was a spirit here. I could tell there was an atmosphere here. That there was something electric and alive.”
Markley loved Visible Music College. “I couldn’t believe I was going to school for music. That was the coolest thing. I felt so cool. I felt so good. From being a kid who never thought he could be a musician, to be in a music college that I had auditioned to get into. I was very surprised.”
He played bass and wrote songs. “I started messing around with some electronic stuff, too.”
Markley then decided to again change up things. “I was going to switch schools and go to this music college in Germany by a man named David Pierce. He does radical missionary ministries. Just going into some of the darkest places in the world and doing this Christian music. In places that you can be killed for doing it. I loved his passion. Because it resonated with that whole passion: ‘No, I’m not going be normal. No, I’m going to pave my own path.’ I just loved that. It spoke to the whole hippie thing, the punk thing, all of that.”
Markley was accepted to the school, but he didn’t have enough money to go. He ended up taking a trip to Alaska and getting a job with a buddy at a Bible camp in Alpine, Alaska. They played for worship services each day. “I know Christian music gets pigeon-holed, but we made it fun. I remember we were doing this song called ‘Blessed be the Name’ and we were doing 190 beats per minute making it punk rock for the kids. They loved it.”
He enjoyed working with kids. “I love to be goofy and joke around, so being around kids, I feel like the filter comes off of me and I get to be really silly.”
Markley returned to Visible College that Fall. “I was in songwriting for a year. I loved it. I got my first standing ovation ever. I’ll never forget it. It was one of the best moments of my life. I was playing this original song I wrote for the school. My first performance as a songwriter. It was called, ‘What I’ve Been Given.’ Just a three-chord song. It was a rock song. Gut busting. For some reason it worked.”
That same year one of Markley’s good friends died. “Lost him. And it really hit me hard. I was class president at the time. Everything in the world was going for me. I got Dean’s list, all this great stuff. And then he passed away. I started to lose my faith. One day a drink came my way after five years of not drinking. And I took that drink. After that it was a matter of time before I completely self imploded and was off my rocker.”
He quit school and signed with an independent label. He also got a job at a bar. “My drinking and drugs, they went with me. I would do cocaine so I could drink more. I know that sounds really weird, but I would take cocaine and Adderall at the same time, just so I could drink all night.”
Finally, he says, “I hit a bottom. I was thinking about ending it. I started to get to a really dark place.”
There were “just a lot of dead ends in my life. I was just going to drink and drink and drink and, hopefully, my idea was, ‘Maybe, I’ll just do something really stupid while I’m drinking. Just not thinking clear at all. Maybe I’ll drive my car off the road or something.’”
Markley again had to look at himself. “I had to make a decision again. I’m either going to keep doing this and die or I’m going to change my life again.”
He decided to stop drinking. “I started hanging out in a recovering community. I started getting involved with other people who were sober and met such amazing people. I believe they saved me.”
Markley was back in Wisconsin when he got a call from Sarah Simmons, who had gone to Visible. She said they needed a bass player to tour with her band, the Sarah Simmons Band. Markley left for Nashville the next day. “I made a conscious decision to start pushing myself.”
That was three years ago. Markley, who still plays with the Sarah Simmons Band, is a substitute teacher at School Rock.
A “totem pole of joy” is one of Markley’s many tattoos. “I believe my gift is joy. The spiritual gift of joy. Being able to joke or bring humor in dark situations somehow. Sometimes, it’s really uncomfortable. And it’s painful sometimes. But joy is not happiness. Joy is a state of mind. And it takes trials and tribulations to hold that joy. And it takes strength."
Clay Markley will perform at 8 p.m. May 13 at Canvas at 1737 Madison. No cover charge.